Sweet Island Escape

Article commissioned and written for Sunday Times Travel Section

When the Portuguese abandoned the Chocolate Isles in 1975, life on the two islands slowed to a standstill. Today the remote African archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe is awakening from its slumber thanks to the first shoots of tourism…

I am in a fairytale scene. Abandoned colonial buildings surround me around which the jungle has wreathed its way as if they were Mayan temples. A giant banana tree is growing in the hall of the casa do patrao (the master house) and lianas are clambering across its peeling ceilings.

Is Sleeping Beauty lying upstairs?

A shutter flaps in the wind. I climb a dusty marble staircase. From a balustraded balcony onto which sunlight spills comes the sparkle of turquoise waters and the view of a palm-fringed beach, the green of the jungle leading down to it lit by the hot-orange of flame trees and the flash of a yellow-breasted sunbird.

Time seems to have stopped on the tiny isle of Príncipe. This plantation, Roça Sundi, encircled by turreted walls, was once the island’s biggest cocoa estate and owned by the Portuguese royal family. In its grounds a rusting steam locomotive still sits on corroded tracks. Until 40 or so years ago, it would have carried fresh cocoa beans through the jungle to the coast for export to Lisbon. 

A gaggle of giggling kids come running at me, followed by a scraggy dog, then a fat black sow with four pink piglets. What next – a white rabbit? The children shout “Doce!” (sweets) but are happy enough to be photographed. They squeal with laughter at their digital reflections.

It is little wonder that the remote islands of São Tomé and Príncipe retain a sense of magic realism – of being a tear in the fabric of time. Positioned off the west coast of Africa, they are, in geographical terms, at the centre of the world – the closest landmass to the point in the Atlantic where the imaginary line of the equator crosses the zero meridian.

Even older geologically than the Galapagos, these two dots in the Atlantic are so isolated that many plant and bird species are endemic. Humped black mountains rise out of the jungle accentuating their otherworldly quality. São Tomé’s Cão Grande (Big Dog) is the highest and always shrouded in cloud mist. Waterfalls tumble down its steep sides that are sheathed in ferns, cathedral-like clumps of bamboo and ancient trees with buttress-like roots.

I begin my discovery of the two islands on the smaller of the pair, Príncipe (it is just 30km long and 6km wide) and base myself at Bom Bom Island Resort on its north coast. Pagoda-style bungalows sit on a shoreline overhung by coconut palms. Each evening, I cross a wave-washed wooden pier to a forested islet and the resort’s restaurant where we dine at tables decorated with tropical flowers.

Most of other guests are Portuguese aside from an English gentleman and his grandson who have come for the excellent sports fishing (“Don’t write the article,” they beg, “keep this place secret!”) and two adventurous tourists from Paris. Oscar and Ludwig tell me they have spent the past week trekking and birdwatching around neighbouring São Tomé Island, staying each night on restored plantation houses. “It was wonderful – so untouched,” says Oscar, “but some of the accommodation was a bit basic – the mattresses were not the best…”

I have no complaints about my mattress. It is so heavenly at Bom Bom that it would be easy to sit for days on my veranda with a novel on my lap, watching fallen coconuts wash in and out, and that is exactly what I do my first day.

But the next, after a swim from one of the resort’s two secluded beaches and a breakfast of papaya and pineapple, I go scuba diving. The volcanic ocean floor and mix of equatorial currents make for a fantastic underwater show of fan corals, turtles, barracuda and rays.

Carlito is my guide on the island. He, like many islanders, speaks Lung’iye, a Creole tongue, besides Portuguese. His ancestors came from Cape Verde and were part of the import of thousands of slaves brought in by the Portuguese from the 15th century onwards from its African colonies. Toiling a six-day week, with only the songs of their homeland to break the monotony, their efforts meant that by the early 20th century, the islands had become one of the world’s largest cocoa producers. Carlito’s father was still working for a Portuguese plantation owner in 1975 when Independence was declared.

“Then, the Santomean government nationalised the estates and everyone got an acre of land,” says Carlito. “My father was excited at first and grew manioc and bananas but in the end he only ever scraped a living.” His mother Maria Teresa still says life was better under the Portuguese. Carlito is not sure: “I think that things are about to improve for us all.”

They could be. Oil exploration has begun offshore and tourism and investment are bringing a new optimism. Cocoa and coffee production is restarting and many of the old plantation houses are being restored into rural hotels, attracting adventurous travellers keen to trek the rainforests, lounge on its deserted beaches and explore its crumbling colonial splendour.

In the capital city, São Tomé, a Portuguese chain has just opened a five-star hotel complete with infinity pool over the bay where the first Portuguese ships landed in 1470. Along the coast, the prettiest beaches dotted by fishermen’s shacks are being earmarked for holiday developments.

Of the 9,000 tourists who visited in 2007, most were from Portugal. “São Tomé and Príncipe has a nostalgia for us,” Joana, a management consultant from Porto, tells me. She had her imagination sparked by a new Portuguese bestseller, Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares (Bloomsbury, translated by Peter Bush). A novel of romance and intrigue, it was adapted last year for Portuguese television and is set in São Tomé in 1905 during the colonial glory days. It tells of a womanising Portuguese governor out to convince Britain (William Cadbury particularly) not to boycott the islands’ cocoa over its appalling worker conditions.

I set off by quad bike next day with Oscar and Ludwig to explore more of Príncipe. It feels a bit boorish to be roaring along pot-holed roads on these noisy beasts but they are a practical way of accessing the red mud tracks into the forest. Ignoring a tropical downpour, we rumble past clapboard houses painted bright turquoise, pink or yellow, enclosed by hibiscus and bougainvillea hedges.

Their residents wave and call “Bom dia!”. “There is a lot of poverty in São Tomé and Príncipe but not a lot of misery,” says Carlito. “No-one goes hungry – we go into the forest and pick bananas, breadfruit and mangoes.” Judging by the smiles, the population of 40,000 islanders here do seem happy. That said, most still survive at subsistence level and more than 80% of the islands’ budget currently comes from international aid.

Soaked by the warm rain, we reach Roça Belo Monte, another example of tumbledown grandeur high on a hill. “It’s gorgeous. I want to buy it and restore it to a boutique hotel,” sighs Oscar. He is too late. A Portuguese company has the same idea…

The sun has come out. Below is Praia Banana, a curve of white sand with gin-clear water that was once the setting for a Bacardi commercial. There’s not a single other footstep in the sand. Oscar and Ludwig run to dive in. I watch, enviously. I haven’t brought my swimsuit (nor has Ludwig; he strips to his Calvin Klein’s and later drives back in his shorts, CKs tied to the steering bar).

It is a 40-minute hop in a 14-seater plane across the stretch of ocean that divides Príncipe from its bigger neighbour São Tomé (50km long and 32km wide). Grass grows between the cracks on the runway of its ‘international’ airport and goats and hens roam outside. Two hulking rusting 1950s propeller planes sit on a slipway. Time seems to have stopped here too…

At the airport, I meet, of all unexpected people, the British explorer Benedict Allen, who has come to soak up the atmosphere as inspiration for a planned novel. There is plenty of it in São Tomé’s tiny capital which goes by the same name (it means St Thomas in Portuguese). We wander the streets, making small talk with moneychangers with battered briefcases, and admiring colourful buildings with ornate wooden balconies that would not look out of place in Havana.

Overlooking it all is the lumbering white fortress of São Sebastião, built by the Portuguese in 1576 and now the national museum. The curator moves a stone trap door. Rebellious plantation workers used to be placed in the dungeon beneath and dealt with by the tide. He slices fingers across throat to indicate their fate.

Swarming the main square are saffron-yellow taxis around a raucous market where women sit with pyramids of limes, tomatoes and chillies, and piles of spiny breadfruit and pockmarked jackfruit. Others have enamel bowls daringly balanced on their heads from which poke the jagged tails of peixe voador (flying fish).

Three-hundred-and-sixty degrees of ocean means that fish is always on the menu and during my stay I eat plenty, from sharing a simple meal of grilled fish and breadfruit with fishermen over a beach fire to an elaborate tasting menu of traditional Santomean cuisine at Roça Sao João.

This restored plantation house and eco-tourism venture is run by local chef João Carlos Silva, whose TV programmes On the Plantation with Moustaches have been hugely popular across Africa. The guesthouse has six simple bedrooms with views over the forest, and a restaurant with a veranda strung with hammocks.

Silva uses spices that echo a heritage stretching from Mozambique to Cape Verde. I savour rice fish balls flavoured with saffron and coriander; grilled tuna with vanilla seeds; a micoco omelette (a thyme-like herb), and calulú, a rich stew made from smoked chicken and fresh herbs. I finish with a cup of locally grown coffee.

You can’t come to the Chocolate Isles of course without tasting the chocolate and the best company to do this in is that of master chocolatier Claudio Corallo. Corallo, from Florence, was drawn by the islands’ perfect cocoa-growing ‘terroir’ and is one of those reviving the industry. He tackles his art with the exactitude of a master winemaker and his single-estate chocolate – considered a ‘grand cru’ by experts – is on sale in Fortnum and Masons and other speciality outlets.

From his small factory in São Tomé, he holds tasting sessions. Oscar and Ludwig and I join and a group of Portuguese to sample his collection. It includes an earthy 100 per cent cocoa variety; a fiery dark blend with crystallised ginger, and finally, an intoxicating variety with raisins soaked in a liqueur distilled from cocoa pod pulp. It is gorgeous and Oscar takes so many pieces that Ludwig has to discreetly push the tasting dish out of his friend’s reach...

São Tomé town turns out to offer a lively night out. Enjoying a caipirinha on my last evening at Café e Companhía, an expat hangout where tables spill into the street (fortunately the drinks are strong, this place is so buzzing it takes ages to get a refill), I meet an exuberant young Santomean painter, Kwame Sousa. His impressionistic work of local scenes sells for high prices in Lisbon and is on display here at the city’s Teia D’@rte [sic] Gallery that exhibits native artists and those from former Portuguese colonies.

In recent years, São Tomé and Príncipe have become an artistic mecca; a kind of tropical St Ives. “Life is so real here and the colours are so unreal,” enthuses Kwame. To prove the point, he invites me to a street party where we find a kizomba band playing a sensual African rhythm. A power cut at midnight evokes a cheer and candlelight, followed by alcohol-fuelled dance gyrations late into the night.

So I leave the islands in a blur of colour: from the bright yellows, greens and purples of the cocoa pods; to the tropical pink of the waxy porcelain rose endemic to the isles; to the cobalt blue of the ocean that blinks through the palm trees, this is a dazzling country. Much of it is rough and ready but it offers a very warm welcome. Go now – and give the Portuguese a run for their money…

Need to know

Sarah Monaghan travelled to São Tomé and Príncipe with Africa’s Eden (www.africas-eden.com) which also offers combined trips to Loango National Park in the neighbouring West African country of Gabon and to the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve in the Congo Basin.

Prices start from €1,720 for an eight-day trip with four days each on São Tomé and Príncipe, including full-board accommodation at Bom Bom Island on Príncipe and half-board at the Omali Lodge Luxury Hotel in São Tomé town and flight transfers between São Tomé and Príncipe. International flights are not included.

Activities depend on the season and include guided island exploration tours, plantation visits, trekking, birdwatching, whalewatching, sea turtle night viewing, quad biking, sports fishing, kayaking, snorkeling and diving.

TAP flies direct to São Tomé from Lisbon or you can fly via Gabon with Air France and Gabon Airlines (via Paris) or Lufthansa (via Frankfurt), with a connecting flight to the islands (one hour from Libreville, Gabon) with Gabonese airline Air Service.

A visa for São Tomé and Príncipe costs US$100. A yellow fever vaccination is required and anti-malarial medication is recommended. The local currency is the Santomean dobra ($) although euros are widely accepted.

São Tomé and Príncipe, with their combined population of 160,000, form the second-smallest African country (after the Seychelles). Portuguese is the lingua franca. French is also spoken and some English. São Tomé is 50 km (31 miles) long and 32 km (20 miles) wide and the more mountainous island. Príncipe is 30 km (19 miles) long and 6 km (4 miles) wide.

You can visit at any time of the year. The climate is tropical at about 27°C (80°F) and little variation. The rainy season (mixed weather - blue skies and rain) runs October to May broken by the short dry season of January to February. This and the longer dry season of June to September are the best times for hiking and birdwatching.

More information from: www.saotome.st and www.africas-eden.com